By Virginia Dean
It may have become an extinct 19th-century tradition among English villagers who used to celebrate the dawning of Christmas by splashing trees with cider while firing guns or beating pots and pans, but wassailing is alive and well in this tiny 21st-century New England town in which the impending festive season takes on an air of pageantry and tradition.
Ready for the Yuletide, Woodstockers are gearing up for the costumes and carolers, horses and riders, sleighs and wagons that come with the 36th annual Woodstock Wassail Weekend celebration that takes place this year from Dec. 13-15.
“I’m really excited for it,” said Beth Finlayson, director of the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s the signature event of Woodstock. It involves the whole community. I love the day, and I look forward to having a lot of people in a town that will be bright and cheery.”
With streets decorated in white lights, Currier and Ives costumes and 19th-century Victorian seasonal attire, spectators this year can revel in Christmas at the Farm in a 19th-century farmhouse tour along with wagon/sleigh rides at Billings Farm and Museum; a meet-and-greet with Santa Claus at the Little Theater; the 18th annual holiday house tour; a jaunty holiday tale and the reading of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” for all to enjoy at the Norman Williams Library; holiday music through Pentangle; a Wassail feast hosted by the Woodstock Inn and Resort; a holiday craft fair; the performance of the a capella groups The Ten and WrenSong; and the lighting of the traditional Yule Log, memory
tree and carol sing on the town’s Green immediately following the two-mile loop horse parade that starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Maxham Meadow Road.
Parade founder Antoinette Matlins of Woodstock, who will be riding side saddle in a 19th-century Currier and Ives costume, said that Wassail is “a truly special event.”
“I just can’t tell you the feeling that one gets watching the faces of the children and their families who are hearing the jingling of the bells and the clippity-clop of the horses’ hooves,” said Matlin. “It puts me in the holiday spirit like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Kathy Mercurio of Massachusetts will be participating for her sixth year in the parade with her friends, Lesley Shewmaker of Colorado and Holly Saari, also of Massachusetts.
“I’m so excited for the Wassail,” Mercurio said. “I can’t explain how I feel or what it’s like when we come through on or with our horses, looking at the participants, hearing the horses whinnying.”
Last year, Mercurio won the Judges Award for her costumes from the movie Frozen. This year, she will subsume the role of Santa while driving her 15-year-old miniature horse Celeste the Rock Star; Saari will be Mrs. Claus driving her miniature horse, Candy; and her friend Shewmaker will be an elf on Mercurio’s black paint horse, Doc Holiday.
The last wagon in the parade is the Billings Farm & Museum’s wagon in which Santa Claus and others of the staff or occasional guest will be waving to the audience. The wagon is drawn by a new horse team, brothers Luke and Lonnie, 6 and 7 year-old Percherons.
“They’re a very playful team,” said Wakefield.
Billings Farm & Museum farm manager Chuck Deome indicated that they are also flamboyant.
High Horses, now headed by Nicole Jorgensen, has been serving residents of the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont since 1993, according to its website. It is one of three programs in Vermont whose standards meet the criteria to attain Premier Accreditation by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Its mission is to improve the well-being of people with special needs through a therapeutic equine experience.
Leading the way in the horse & carriage parade will be the Woodstock Union High and Middle School bands, followed by the lighting of the Yule Log, Memory Tree, and Carol Sing on the Green sponsored by the Woodstock Rotary.
Jorgensen said there are about 40 entrants in the annual Wassail event who are eventually judged for best individual costume, best group, best horse drawn vehicle, most seasonally attired, most historic, best singing, and best junior entry.
The Upper Valley Vixens Roller Blades will be the clean-up patrol during the parade.
On Friday Dec. 13, the Billings Farm & Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at which time storyteller Peter Mendes will be entertaining children of all ages at the Norman Williams Public Library. Later in the evening, at 7:30 p.m., BarnArts will present a holiday cabaret at the Grange Theater in South Pomfret. And, new this year, the Yoh Whiffenpoofs will perform at the Town Hall Theater at 7:30 p.m., presented by Pentangle Arts Council.
On Saturday, the 35th annual equestrian parade is coordinated by High Horses Therapeutic Riding Program and the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce to make sure riders and horses are safe and that the crowd stays back. Onlookers line the street around the green for the cavalcade of clopping hooves, tossing manes, jolly jingling bells, tall top hats, flowing skirts, and merriness all around. From tiny ponies to the mighty Percheron draft horses, audiences will delight in watching children in candy cane stockings being carried by the horses along with adults in historic finery, heavy carts, and Santa himself.
The Woodstock Chamber of Commerce will offer free parking at the Woodstock Union High and Middle School and two shuttle busses that will pick up and drop off at the Woodstock Welcome Center from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Families in need can be helped by stuffing the cruiser (a toy drive) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the heart of the village, sponsored by the Woodstock Police Department.
Pentangle Arts Council will feature a Holiday House Tour of historical homes in Woodstock from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m on Saturday, Dec. 14. The Rainbow Play Nursery School will be serving breakfast with Santa at the Little Theater building from 8-11 a.m.
The historic St. James Episcopal Church will be open for tours and feature music from 10 a.m. to noon. Caroling takes place at the 211-year-old Congregational Church from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Visitors can shop at the Woodstock Wassail Holiday Craft Fair at the Masonic Hall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Later in the evening, there will be Cello by Candlelight with Eugene Friesen and Elizabeth Rogers at the North Chapel Universalist Society and the international music group COIG’s: A Celtic Holiday Concert at the Town Hall Theatre, sponsored by Pentangle Arts.
On Sunday, Billings Farm & Museum will be open and feature horse-drawn sleigh/wagon rides and the Woodstock Holiday Craft Fair will also be available. Skate with Santa at the Union Arena will occur in the late morning and, later in the afternoon, Cookies with Santa can be enjoyed along with a holiday movie at the Town Hall Theater. The 36th annual Messiah Sing at Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church will end the festive weekend.